The wind whips up and the world rolls over on its side. Sunny-side becomes scrambled, sausages hit the deck. The cabin boy is pinned against the bulkhead. He parries a bottle of ketchup, sidesteps a bowl of fruit.
Suds from the washing machine drain into an officer's sink. The officer had been putting on his pants; now he is on the floor.
Topside, Eagle's crew dances with gravity. When she lurches to starboard, they lurch to port. They walk like Groucho Marx. The sails strain, the deck vibrates. It feels as if a whale has caught hold of the anchor and is swimming away furiously. On the bridge, veins bulge on the arms of the helmsmen as he tries to hold the rudder against rushing water. On the fantail, cadets are jumping in the air. If they time it right, and go up just as Eagle comes down from a wave, it feels like floating.
This is sailing Eagle, heeling 25 degrees. The sun is high and the wind is 20 knots south-southwest. The temperature is 77 degrees, four degrees warmer than the surface of the 6,000-foot-deep waters below. Four hundred miles off Charleston, S.C., course 287 by the gyro, the ship cuts a wake of aquamarine and foam, and the air is crystal, with a smell more like sugar than salt. The whole crew loves it--except the cook, the cabin boy, the officer on the floor and a cadet who is sick on the rail.
It's an adrenalin day, a day to step lively or fall, a day when every muscle in the stomach flexes to hold the rest of the body upright. It's also a day of learning, for heeling has a way of making green cadets remember that nature does what she wants. She'll offer fine winds on occasion, but the price of exhilaration is a certain amount of sausage on the deck, and the realization that the same wind that tousles hair can capsize a ship.
So they learn to cope with life on an angle, filling glasses half full, lying salt shakers on their sides, putting the dishes back into spring-loaded wells. The camera goes under the pillow, the half-empty soda in the sink, and the ashtray in the top drawer of the desk. They discover that they'd better hold on when they sleep, especially on the top of a triple-decker rack.
On Eagle, the greater message is this: Men are tiny against a 14-story mast and a mast is tiny against an ocean. "It's frightening at times when you think about it," says First-Class Cadet Paul Ferguson. "There's so much water out there, you have to respect it; know how powerful it is. If somebody goes overboard in heavy seas, the chances are slim and none that we'd ever find them. It would be like being lost in space . . . I'm not obsessed with the fear of the sea. We all just know what we're dealing with."
Seaman James Ahl is straddling the main royal yardarm, the highest on the mast. He loves to climb in the rigging, never hooks his safety belt, either. He especially loves it on a day like today, when Eagle is heeled and the mast is arching from side to side as she bobs through the waves. Ahl compares it to the weightlessness of pole vaulting.
"If you fall you're either going to splat on the deck or break your back on the water," he says. "But if you're going to die you're going to die." Ahl may enjoy danger, but whenever he climbs the mast he pauses a moment to kiss two crossed anchors painted there. They mark the spot where a man was killed two years ago when the main royal yardarm gave way.
Fourteen stories below, Captain Martin Moynihan smokes his pipe. Moynihan has thick brows over eyes a shade lighter than the sea, and the finely etched wrinkles of a man who has spent 22 years on Coast Guard cutters looking into the wind. While his crew lurches and stumbles, he is planted like a punching bag with sand in its bottom for ballast. He's been sailing since he won a week at a summer camp on Long Island, a prize for being a Newsday honor paperboy. He still respects the sea.
Once, when Moynihan was commanding a cutter out of New England, his crew rescued a man off a fishing trawler near Cape Cod. The man's hand had been mangled and a finger would need amputation. After the man was taken to sickbay, Moynihan went below to see him. "It was the first time I really got a look at him. He must have been 60 or 70 years old, and I told him how sorry I was about his finger. He said I shouldn't worry about it; that it was the third one he'd lost.
"That's when I realized about the sea, that's when it all came home. I used to like to have swim call now and then, but when you jump off the ship, it's like jumping into a bottomless pit. Look around you. You see nothing but sea. You can get burned to a crisp by the sun, drenched by the rain, beaten by waves. I've seen hulls crushed by waves. But darn it, you get a good wind like you have today and it's darn exhilarating."
Too much exhilaration can get tiring, as Eagle's crew learned last year. Eagle was six hours out of her home port of New London, Conn., headed for Cork, Ireland, when she hit a gale. To reach Ireland on schedule the crew had no choice but to take the straightest line, a position that put them just before the storm's 40 knot winds. Heeled at 40 degrees, Eagle rode the winds like a surfboard for 18 days. The crew almost could stand on the walls.
After a few days, though, the angle got old. Few in the crew could keep from falling out of their racks, so there were arguments over who would claim the few lounge couches that ran abeam of the ship. The waves washed over the rails, onto which scores of cadets were hooked by safety lines in a nonstop, sea-sick vigil. Twenty cases of stomach-settling saltine crackers were gone in a week.
The washing machines were useless. Someone rigged a net, put in the clothes and threw it overboard. It took two hours to wrestle the net back in, but the rushing water had balled the clothes so tightly they had hardly gotten wet.
Formal meals were suspended. "It was a hand-to-mouth kind of thing," remembers Lt. Cmdr. William Hain, Eagle's executive officer. "Most of the people couldn't eat. The rest of us ate baloney and cheese sandwiches for 18 days. They would put the baloney and cheese on a platter and replenish the supply each day, until the stuff on the bottom of the pile was really rank."
But on this day and on this cruise, there is no gale and no particular course Eagle must sail. It is getting late now, and the orange sun silhouettes the rigging, puts a glow on the sails as it drops toward the horizon. The order is given to fall off the wind. After nine hours on her side, Eagle rolls upright.
At this, some of the older hands in the enlisted ranks are briefly puzzled. They see that the Coast Guard pennant atop the foremast is still whipping, but Eagle's sails are empty, and they blow forward and then snap back, making a sound like thunder. Lines clang against the masts. Heads shake side to side in disgust.
"This isn't sailing. This is bull," says one enlisted man. "The only reason they changed course is because it's time for the evening meal. The officers don't want their food in their laps."